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National InFLUenza Strategy Grp. welcomes research

Media Release
5 May 2005

National InFLUenza Strategy Group welcomes new research

An expert influenza strategy group responsible for raising public and health professional awareness about annual influenza immunisation today welcomed new research by the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The research investigated knowledge and attitudes about influenza vaccination amongst GPs, practice nurses and people aged 65 and over.

National Influenza Strategy Group (NISG) spokesman and virologist Dr Lance Jennings said today the research confirms more work needs to be done to encourage at-risk groups, particularly people aged 65 years and over, to immunise against influenza. Last year, the uptake in this group was estimated at between 54-65 percent, and as low as 33 percent for people with an on-going medical condition such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease. These percentages are below the national influenza target level of 75 percent, despite the vaccine being free for these groups. NISG has been aware for some time that there are key myths acting as obstacles to people being vaccinated against influenza. Some of these have been confirmed in the latest research.

``We encourage any attempt to dispel these myths, two of which are that being fit and healthy means you're less likely to catch influenza and that you can get the 'flu from the vaccine,'' Dr Jennings said.

``Neither of these are true. Accordingly, our communications programme for the 2005 influenza season has a theme of 'You're never too fit to get hit'. It starts from the basis that even fit and healthy people are vulnerable to what is a highly contagious virus - it isn't just the weak and infirm who are susceptible.''

Former All Black captain Buck Shelford will this year front NISG's 'You're never too fit to get hit' influenza immunisation campaign. The first television advertisements will be screened on Friday (May 6) night.

NISG has also developed a range of resources for GPs and vaccinators, aimed at helping health professionals to raise influenza awareness.

``We know that the biggest influence on someone's decision to get vaccinated is a recommendation from their health professional, and we've asked them to continue to help us do this,'' Dr Jennings said.

``Issues with vaccine supply and distribution has meant we've had a difficult start to the influenza campaign this year, which has, unfortunately, created anxiety among many New Zealanders and placed real pressure on health professionals delivering vaccinations. However, now most of the vaccine is in the country, people can be assured there is enough vaccine to cover all those who wish to be immunised and because there is still little influenza around in the community, people have time to get their immunisation. It's important to remember that influenza is a serious illness that can hit people extremely hard, and immunisation is, without doubt, the best protection against this disease.'' The subsidised influenza vaccination campaign runs until the end of July

ENDS

Background People with long-term health conditions have the greatest risk of complications from influenza and that is why influenza vaccination is provided free to these groups. This includes those 65 years and over, and those adults and children with certain chronic conditions including:

· heart disease

· stroke

· ongoing respiratory (chest) diseases like chronic bronchitis or asthma (but only those requiring regular preventative medication)

· diabetes

· ongoing renal (kidney) disease

· most cancers

· other conditions affecting the immune system such as HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and organ transplants.

Overseas studies have shown that influenza vaccination cuts hospitalisations and deaths in the 65 and over age group during the influenza season.

Vaccination is the best protection against influenza. For everyone in the 'at risk' groups, early vaccination is recommended even if they are feeling fit and healthy.

Anyone wanting more information about influenza can contact their doctor or practice nurse or telephone 0800 - IMMUNE (0800 466863)

Questions and Answers

What is influenza?

Influenza is a serious illness that in New Zealand usually causes epidemics every year during the winter months. The illness comes on suddenly with a fever, sore throat, dry cough, aches and pains and headaches. People feel very unwell and the elderly and chronically ill can develop pneumonia and other problems. They may need hospital care.

Why do people need to vaccinate against influenza?

Influenza immunisation is the best protection against influenza. Influenza infection in people with ongoing medical conditions, even if their condition is well controlled, may lead to more serious illness and death.

Influenza can cause pneumonia and can act as a trigger that makes existing medical conditions worse. In older people and those with ongoing medical conditions such as heart disease, other respiratory problems and diabetes this can lead to hospitalisation and even death.

Where can eligible people get a free vaccination?

Free vaccinations are available from your local General Practitioner even though a practice nurse may be the one who actually administers the injection to you. The vaccine is injected into your upper arm.

How many vaccinations were provided last year?

There were about 704,000 vaccine doses distributed during the 2004 influenza season, a 3.2 percent increase on the number distributed in 2003.

How can I tell the difference between a cold and influenza?

Influenza makes people feel miserable and is much more serious that a common cold. Influenza will leave you ill for up to 10 days. Most people suffer from a high fever and may require bed rest. Some may also have shivering attacks, muscular pains, headaches, a dry cough, possible vomiting and complications like pneumonia can follow. A vaccine is available to protect against influenza.

A cold however has much less severe symptoms and they generally last only 2-4 days. High fever is less common and shivering attacks and severe headaches are rare. Muscular pains and vomiting are infrequent and the cough will be less severe. There is no vaccine available.

How safe is the vaccine?

The immunisation will not give you influenza because the vaccine contains disrupted virus. Most people have no reaction to the injection. Occasionally the place where the injection was given is red or sore. Some people may feel unwell for a day or two. These are normal responses to the immunisation.

Does the vaccine actually work?

Yes. For those at high risk, influenza vaccination reduces hospitalisation by 50 percent and mortality by 70 percent. In general the vaccine is 70-90 percent effective in preventing influenza in healthy adults.

Will I get influenza from the vaccination?

No. Influenza vaccine cannot give you the 'flu as it contains fragments of disrupted virus.

What is the Ministry of Health and National Influenza Strategy Group (NISG) doing to encourage people to be vaccinated?

The main role for NISG and the Ministry of Health is to increase public awareness of influenza and its seriousness. NISG has developed a series of user-friendly resources for the public, some of which address myths about the vaccine. An example is the misconception that taking the vaccine will give the person influenza. These resources are available when you get vaccinated.

NISG has also given health providers resources to help them promote vaccination to all at-risk groups, and established links with relevant organisations to ensure that they are given information and resources to pass on to their members.

Summary of 2004 influenza statistics

During the 2004 influenza season, 3277 consultations for influenza-like illness were reported from a national sentinel network of 86 general practices. It is estimated that influenza-like illness affected more than 35,000 New Zealanders during the season, compared with more than 46,000 people in 2003.

How are the statistics collected?

There are two parts to the influenza surveillance systems in New Zealand - sentinel general practice (GP) surveillance and laboratory-based (mainly hospital) virological surveillance.

General Practice Surveillance

The sentinel GP surveillance system started in 1991 as part of the WHO Global programme for influenza surveillance. It is operated nationally by ESR and locally by influenza surveillance co-ordinators in the public health services.

In 2004, national influenza GP surveillance was carried out from May to October. Local surveillance co-ordinators recruited General Practices within their region to participate on a voluntary basis. GPs recorded the number of consultations for influenza-like illness each week and the age group of each of these suspected cases.

Each practice was also asked to collect throat or nose swabs from patients seen with an influenza like illness each week. The swabs were sent to a regional virus diagnostic laboratory and/or ESR for strain identification.

Laboratory-based surveillance (year round)

In addition to positive identification of the influenza virus from GP surveillance, year round virological surveillance of influenza (and other viruses) is carried out by the four regional virus diagnostic laboratories at Auckland, Waikato, Christchurch and Dunedin hospitals, and by ESR. ESR acts as New Zealand's designated WHO National Influenza Centre.

Each week the regional virus diagnostic laboratories report all viral identifications including influenza largely from hospital in-patients and outpatients, to ESR, where the data is collated and reported nationally.

ENDS


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